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Ralph Nader Talks the Seventeen Traditions

What the childless politician has to say about parenting.

By Madeline Holler |

It’s more than a little ballsy for a seventy-three-year-old childless attorney to want to publish a book about parenting. But we’re talking about Ralph Nader, a person hardly expected to give a rip about what would typically qualify him for the tasks at hand (2000 and 2004 presidential elections, anyone?).

Despite his latest book’s sentimental language and appearance – the text is sepia-tone, chapters are illustrated with heartwarming sketches of his bucolic Connecticut hometown – The Seventeen Traditions is a straightforward how-to manual on turning our precious blank slates into smart, worldly agitators who challenge authority, stand up for what’s right, and do way more than just coloring outside the lines.

I called Nader recently to get his take on kids these days, their moms and dads, and whether modern urban parenting could possibly match the idyllic, safe, affordable setting of his own childhood. I also wanted to settle a personal vendetta: Decades ago, he ruined one of my own family’s cherished traditions – cruising the open highway in my grandma’s Chevy Corvair, a car Nader called “Unsafe at Any Speed” in the investigation and book that made him famous and launched his consumer and public advocacy career.

Plus, an exclusive on the 2008 elections. – Madeline Holler

What I want most for my two girls is that they learn to take risks, challenge authority, stand up for their principles and speak on behalf of themselves and others. I know from experience that can be intimidating, even alienating. It doesn’t come naturally for me. Your father said, “Don’t look down on anybody for their work, and don’t be in awe of anybody.” Is that how you can stand up to a corporation or openly criticize popular ideas or run for president two times? Not being in awe of anybody?

Well, [my siblings and I] watched our parents operate in the community. They stood up to injustice and falsehoods and bigotry. They weren’t aggressive in any way, they were very casual about it and we learned that just by watching. There was a don’t-look-down-don’t-look-up approach. We weren’t awed by kings or presidents or governors or CEOs. It was all about eye-level contact.

Is that how you can keep waging these monumental battles and not playing it safe?

Sure. And my parents raised children who had a sense of purpose, who had an ever-developing public philosophy and felt that their major purpose in life is to try to improve life.

You talk about consequences of self-censorship and conformity. In the parenting world, we’re expected to tiptoe around our differences, lest we be accused of taking up arms in the “Mommy Wars.” You write that your father engaged in political discussions with everyone who came through the door of his restaurant. How did he do that without offending people or losing customers?

First of all, he did it in a way where people felt their intelligence was being respected. There was no looking down on people. He respected their differences. He liked to engage with people though he might not agree with them. As for lost customers? He said that’s the price of freedom. He did lose some business, but he came over here [to the U.S. from Lebanon] to breathe the air of freedom, free speech.

Mowing the lawn was hardly a favorite childhood activity of yours, but you say that kind of hard work was foundational. Where I live in Southern California, nobody, much less kids, seems to mow their own lawn. Even friends who are struggling to pay the mortgage always have $60 each month to pay the gardener.

That’s a pronounced difference in the generations. These kids are missing out. They’re not exercising their bodies, they’re not getting the discipline of manual labor, which is important. Maybe later in life they’ll have white-collar jobs, they won’t know what goes into mowing or raking leaves or shoveling snow. In that sense, too, there’s a loss. It’s creating a spoiled generation, even. The discipline of work is part of being raised.

You praise your mother for not complaining about the work of raising kids. First, are you sure she didn’t complain about it? And would that have been a problem? Are today’s parents too whiny?

When the latest women’s rights movement came on, [they] made a lot of homebound moms feel guilty or feel inferior, which I think was a big mistake.It was a different generation, they didn’t complain. They knew it was part of the job – just like a doctor doesn’t go to work and complain that they have to take care of patients. Mothers were active in the community, they were raising kids. These were fulfilling tasks. When the latest women’s rights movement came on, [they] made a lot of homebound moms feel guilty or feel inferior, which I think was a big mistake by the Gloria Steinem types. They lost a large constituency that way. What they should have done was enlarge the function of staying home to include the neighborhood and the community and civic engagement. Where the people who have to go to work don’t have time for that . . . What’s the most important work? It’s civic engagement by far – state, local, national, international level.

Let’s bring your early professional life around to my young one. My sister and I loved riding in the back of our grandmother’s red convertible Corvair, top down, no seatbelts, tearing around Western Kansas. One day she parked it in a barn and never drove it again. Should I be thanking you?

[Laughs] At least it was a convertible. You wouldn’t have been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide too.

Give me an exclusive, are you running in 2008?

No . . .

No, you’re not running or no, you’re not saying?

It’s too early to tell . . .

Are you up for it?

It’s not up to me entirely. If I can’t get on the ballot . . .

Let’s say you run. What can government do to help American families?

Affordable housing. This idea that we can produce endless numbers of iPods and computers and hamburgers but somehow there’s always a shortage of houses is an example of inverted priorities. There needs to be more participatory recreational facilities in the cities – instead of just turning kids into spectators, without being scheduled in leagues. There’s a lot of tax dollars being put into stadiums for billionaire sports owners, but the little basketball courts and recreation facilities for kids are not well-maintained and there aren’t enough.

You sound like a city councilman.

Well, there’s universal healthcare. That would reduce a lot of anxiety. Living wage. People should be able to live on one job instead of being away from home for a job and a half.

Universal childcare?

Sure. That [affordable, quality daycare centers] should be part of the neighborhood, part of our lives, just like the fire station.

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About Madeline Holler

madeline-holler

Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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5 thoughts on “Ralph Nader Talks the Seventeen Traditions

  1. jackiebp says:

    I think Madeline was a little soft on Ralph. I can’t believe he thinks that his mother never complained about her job. If I had heard him say this:”It was a different generation, they didn’t complain. They knew it was
    part of the job just like a doctor doesn’t go to work and complain
    that they have to take care of patients. Mothers were active in the
    community, they were raising kids. These were fulfilling tasks.” I think I might have had a follow up question for him. Parenting is hard and not all of it is fulfilling – sometimes it’s irksome, sometimes it’s boring. I think since he doesn’t have kids he can’t have this perspective and he is just looking at his own childhood with some rose-colored glasses.

  2. RachelZ says:

    Damn right, I bet his mother complained.  She probably had a best friend or a gang of coffee friends and I would bet my foot that she bitched and moaned just like the rest of us do.
     
    On the other hand, Ralph has a point that kids don’t know anything about basic things like mowing the lawn, washing dishes by hand, etc, because there’s always someone or some machine to do that for them.  I myself am dealing with this now, because I want to learn how to sew.  That’s something that all girls learned at one point, and now I can count on one hand the number of people I know who can sew.  I also would like to learn how to bake bread without my bread machine.  It’s these basic, little-house-on-the-prairie skills that I don’t have and I feel like I should.

     
    And which is why I fully intend to teach my daughter how to sew.  How to knit.  How to bake bread.  How to change a tire.  How to change the oil.  How to mow the lawn.  How to take a hammer and some wood and some nails and some paint and build something.  I’d rather she learn these things than learn how Mama became so good at Tetris.
     
    So I think Ralph is kind of right on with saying that our kids need to learn these things.  I’ll fit them in between violin practice, soccer, French lessons, tennis lessons, ballet, and fencing.  ;-)

  3. sophiesmuma says:

    Madeline- This is your second article I’ve read (the first was how you were so embarrassed that your second child was so much dumber (i.e. slower) than your first… disgusting)… I’m not impressed nor do I consider you worthy of interviewing anyone if this is how you talk to them. It’s fine to disagree and critique this book, but have you no pride in yourself to even be considerate of someone and treat them with respect? Grow up.

  4. skeptic says:

    I would bet Nadar  never heard his Mom complaining about being a mother or a housewife but perhaps she did complain about the tasks she had to do.  My parents are in their 80′s, my grandparents would have been about about the same age as Nader’s’ parents.  My grandmother, a farmer’s wife,  never complained in all the years I knew her about her status as wife or the drudgery of her everyday life. She marvelled at the handiness of a having a small washboard for travel, the existence of a washing machine ( and the absolute miracle of the self wringer ( spin cycle) and of course the dishwasher. She had a college education but she expected manual labor to be a part of her life.  She never owned a TV . Her chores were difficult, she canned all her own food until well into her 90′s. She had many female friends who uncomplaining  excepted life to be difficult, surprised when it was not but were always grateful for having loving spouses and indoor plumbing.   I wish I could say the same about myself.

  5. BBBGMOM says:

    Maybe Ralph’s mom was like my mom and my grandmothers, who felt their role was to provide meals, clean homes, safety, occasional merriment, etc. to their families without kvetching.  If RN to this day thinks his mom never complained then maybe that is a function of his never having been a parent (and experienced the sheer exhaustion etc.) and his general naivete.  My mother and grandmothers never complained to US, which, frankly, I am trying to emulate with my own kids.  But I have no doubt they complained to their sisters, friends and neighbors.  I have been happy to learn (after becoming a mother) that my mom bitched about my insolence and irritating habits, not to mention my dad’s laziness around the house, to her best friend and my aunts during my childhood.  It is my job to work with my spouse to provide a clean, safe, enjoyable home to my kids.  I do not think the kids should be burdened with my whining.  I whine to my girlfriends over wine (haha) and on date night.  It is definitely a balance – raising appreciative, respectful kids (which does require their increasing awareness of their caregivers’ contributions) who also feel cherished.  And I agree w/ RN and posters that it is part of my job to teach the kids (when age appropriate) how to mow the lawn, shovel the snow, wash the clothes, and make meals. Why would you want a kid to feel he/she was too much trouble?  I hope that by eighteen each child of mine feels he/she was loved and cared for every single day and is now able to love and care for him/herself… at college!

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